May 23, 2008

geeKyoto 08

geeKyoto 08

Event type: Conference

Date: 2008-05-17

As I mentioned, last weekend I was over in London to attend the excellent geeKyoto conference, organised by Mark Simpkins and Ben Hammersley. I had grand plans of writing up my thoughts on the varied and interesting speakers, but my notes seem rather scant. That's because I was busy taking in all the information that was streaming at me, rather than scribbling it all down.

The talks were all being filmed, so I'll provide a link to them once they're online. And in lieu of proper notes, here's the running order of the presentations with a sentence or two of description.

Christian Nold

Christian wondered why all the talk about climate change was about what either the individual or the masses could do. He pointed out that there's a full range of groups and communities in between.

He showed some of the ways that he's helping people to understand and map their local area - such as looking at noise levels (and actually giving people noise meters to measure it themselves); or mapping what you can sense in different locations; or showing the emotional landscape of an area. A different way to involve people in their community.

More at his website.

Alex Haw: Spatial Control - and methods for losing it

Although he originally trained as architect, Alex is now an artist and as the day wore on became the official conference maverick - suggesting outlandish and challenging ideas so you don't have to...

His talk was similarly themed. A run through a collection of the projects he's created, conducted at break-neck speed. A lot of them involved his interest in surveillance - trying to visualize how where we are and aren't watched by cameras, or other people.

One quote in his presentation that I particularly liked (although I don't think I agree with it) was from John Cage: "Don't try to improve the world as you'll only make it worse".

Simon Daniels - CEO Moixa Energy

Moixa Energy are the company behind the USBCell, a AA-sized battery with a built-in USB plug so you can recharge it from your computer.

A fair bit of the presentation was talking about their philosophy around the USBCell, how they're trying to reduce the amount of waste, mainly from disposable batteries.

However, the part that interested me most was their talk about the rise of DC. 240V AC electricity is a useful way to get power into the home from a remote power station, and is good for driving power-hungry applications like washing machines. These days, a lot of our power usage is for computers, mobile phones, mp3 players, etc. which all use low-voltage DC. Is there an argument for a second power supply standard within the home that provides low-voltage DC? Then we could get rid of all these transformers that are currently inside chargers, and could probably use on-site renewable power generation to provide most, if not all, of the low voltage needs.

It's something I've wondered in the past myself, so it will be interesting to see how they get on with it.

Adrian Hon and Naomi Alderman - A Secular (and Environmentally-friendly) Sabbath)

Adrian and Naomi used the conference to launch a new idea for the soul -

It takes its inspiration from the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath, where you aren't allowed to do any work or change the state of anything electrical. As a result you can't use a computer, or a phone, or cook, or even travel anywhere apart from on foot.

The net result is that you end up doing things which are on the whole less stressful, such as reading or getting together with friends and going for a walk, or singing, or just talking.

They aren't trying to get people to do it once-a-week, but are encouraging people to try it maybe one day each month. Climb off the rat-race treadmill, and reconnect with friends.

As you end up using less electricity, it's better for the world, but mostly better for the soul.

The slides from their talk are available on the website.

Gavin Starks

Gavin is one of the founding directors of AMEE - the Avoiding Mass Extinction Engine. It aggregates data about carbon footprint from a variety of sources and lets people build carbon calculators. It's the engine behind the Government's carbon calculator and is used by people like Google.

They want energy to be the performance metric.

He also presented some interesting ideas for deploying things to save the world. For example, we'd need lots (Gavin had some numbers here, rather than hand-waving "lots") of photovoltaic cells to generate enough power for the planet, but we also produce a new phone every 9 seconds... what if it had a solar panel on it? It's easy to get overwhelmed by the volume of things we'd need to build in order to harvest the renewable energy sources, but we should remember the sheer scale of things that we already manufacture.

Vincenzo Di Maria

Vincenzo is a student at Central St. Martins, but originally from Sicily. He talked about one of his design projects which melds tourism (the "new industry") with the "old industry" of tomato producing in Sicily.

He set up a tomato farm tourist attraction where visitors could see how the tomatoes are grown and how some are dried out in the sun. In the farm shop they can buy a crate of tomatoes to take home, which also contains the materials to let them try growing and drying their own - to take the experience home with them.

Bruno Taylor: "Play in a changing public realm"

Bruno, also a student at Central St. Martins, discussed how children don't seem to play on the streets any more.

It was an excellent presentation questioning our use and expectations of public space. "Is it vandalism or playful behaviour?" Maybe those youths hanging around menacingly at the playground just look that way because the play equipment these days is increasingly designed for younger children, and so when older children appropriate it then it looks wrong somehow.

We also seem to have both a fear of children and a fear for children. We don't want them hanging round because it makes us uneasy, and similarly society seems perpetually disproportionately afraid of the dangers to children.

As part of his project he hung a swing from a bus shelter to see if adults could be encouraged to act in a playful manner, and there's a video of it on YouTube.

Richard Sandford: Images of the Future

In the first session after lunch, Richard Sandford set about persuading us that we can change the future.

In what was my favourite talk of the whole day, he pointed out that there's a wealth of possible futures but we have a tendency to sleepwalk into one. People are forever denying themselves the future that they want by dismissing it with a throwaway "...but being realistic, what will happen is..."

Richard argues that we shouldn't undermine our own dreams. His talk was quietly inspiring about the possibilities of changing the future.

He's posted the slides up on his website.

Greta Corke: DIY Kyoto

DIY Kyoto produce the UK designed and built Wattson, a stylish whole-house energy monitor. It's a small energy sensor that attaches to your current mains supply and wirelessly communicates with the display unit. That shows your current energy usage as either cost, or KWhs and includes an ambient glow to show if you're above or below your average.

They don't judge your usage, just aim to make it visible. If you want to drive your usage down that's up to you, although they also provide a way to group together and opt into competition on their website.

There was some discussion about whether you could get the Wattson to turn things off if you went above a set level. Greta said they'd considered/played around with that, but that it runs counter to their do-not-judge philosophy. However, being able to set thresholds, etc. is coming in Wattson 03.

Ed Scotcher

Ed discussed how social and web tools might help communities in Africa. Not from a "taking computing to the savages" point-of-view, but from a helping people to achieve what they're already building for themselves perspective.

Andy Whitlock has a much better write-up on his blog.

Bryony Worthington: Politics broke emissions trading. It's time to fix it.

I happened to get chatting to Bryony over lunch and she's a passionate and articulate advocate of doing something about climate change. She's also well placed to comment, having worked for Friends of the Earth and is now advising one of the UK power companies.

Her presentation explained some of the complications around emissions trading, and some of the problems with the current system. The EU has instigated a market to cap CO2 emissions from major industrial polluters within the union, but because that conflicts with local employment and competitiveness, there's been a tendency to err on the side of generosity when allocating the permits.

Bryony launched a new campaign website,, to counter the problem. They're mapping where the polluters are, and will be campaigning to ask the companies to give up any excess permits rather than selling them on.

The most interesting feature, I think, is their paid membership option. Sandbag makes it possible for individuals to buy CO2 permits and permanently take them out of the system, thus increasing the cost of producing CO2 for other companies. It's a bit like carbon offsetting, but rather than your money going to build a wind turbine in Africa, it's being used to help clean up our act here in Europe. An excellent idea.

James Smith: Can software save the planet?

Picking a deliberately pompous title for his talk, James admitted that he didn't think software could save the planet. However, he's been writing some software which tries to help people to save the planet, and talked about some of it in his presentation.

First up was, which lets you calculate your actual carbon footprint, rather than estimating things. You enter your electricity readings, etc. and it tells you how much CO2 you're responsible for.

Next, and more successful, is I linked to this (and joined) back in October when it launched. It's a great collection of podcasts and videos encouraging people to do one green thing each month. It's been really successful, but it's hard to work out how much effect it's had because there are lots of users like me who do the green things, but never get round to going back to the website and telling them that I have...

More recently, as a fun, spare-time project, he created a twitter user, co2updates, which twitters updates on CO2 levels.

Finally, he's also set up a mailing list for anyone interested in green issues and software -

Government, Barcamp and Revolution (of the Online Kind)

I was flagging a little by this point, so didn't catch the names of the guys presenting this session. They talked a bit about how to engage with government and also the recent Government BarCamp.

My only notes from this are a slogan from one of the slides: "This revolution is for display purposes only", and a recommendation to brief your local MP on what you're doing, then ask for a meeting to discuss things further.


David Wilcox and a guy from Channel4 whose name I didn't catch announced 2gether08, a conference running later in the year which is aiming to see how geeks can help society. It's still a work in progress, but the website is there and they're hoping, in part, to build upon geeKyoto.

Channel4 have also provided funding (~£50m) for 4IP (a VC/funding body for the channel) to invest in projects that help the public realm. It's very early days, and they're just starting to reach out to people, but will hopefully provide funding for some interesting stuff.

During the questions, someone asked if Channel4 were looking at tying some of the new media in with broadcasting. Their representative pointed out that Channel4 news has been doing just that, and even has two twitter users giving a behind-the-scenes view of the news: c4news and channel4news.

Ben Saunders

The final speaker for the conference was Ben Saunders. He's an explorer who has walked to the North Pole, been attacked by a polar bear, tried to cross the Arctic on foot, and later in the year is trying to walk to the South Pole and back - something that hasn't been tried since Captain Scott!

Or in his words: "I drag heavy things round cold places".

Although he did mention how the ice in the Arctic has changed in the time that he's been walking over it, his talk was focused on personal achievement. He isn't an explorer in the traditional sense, he's not drawing maps of where he's going; his exploration is in the limits of his abilities.

"No-one else is the authority on your potential". We should think bigger and push ourselves further, as we can achieve much more than even we think we're capable of.

Final Thoughts

Post-conference many of us retired to the pub just round the corner. It was good to be able to continue the discussions and also to catch up with Mark, whose idea it all was in the first place.

There were rumours of a possible stateside version of the conference in San Fransisco, and talk of a follow-up hackday in the UK. I can heartily recommend attending any future versions, and I'm looking forward to the hackday.

  • Mia Ridge's notes
  • James Stewart's notes
  • Tags: geekyoto green sustainability geek conference

    Posted by Adrian at May 23, 2008 03:29 PM | TrackBack

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